CLEMSON — Four days before the great American eclipse of 2017, a Clemson University scientist learned a secret that he had to hold until now.

Dieter Hartmann talks about the discovery of gravitational waves.

Dieter Hartmann talks about the discovery of gravitational waves.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

Albert Einstein predicted it. Now, astronomers say it is true. They confirmed the direct detection of gravitational waves or ripples in space time, in addition to light from the collision of two neutron stars.

“Gravitational wave astronomy accomplished its first direct detection of gravitational waves two years ago with the observation of the final collision of two black holes,” said Dieter Hartmann, a professor in Clemson’s physics and astronomy department. “This beautifully confirmed predictions made a century earlier by Albert Einstein.”

The discovery marks the first observation of a cosmic event in both gravitational waves and light.

Scientists used the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Europe-based Virgo detector, along with some 70 ground- and space-based observatories.

“The whole field of gravitational wave astronomy garnered the Nobel Prize,” Hartmann said, “but what was missing is the merger of two neutron stars so we could see other light, and that’s just what happened.”

Hartmann said scientists made the discovery just before the coast-to-coast eclipse.

“So you can imagine how exciting that was for me, right?” Hartmann asked.

The event called GW170817, involved more than 3,000 astronomers, which is about a quarter of all professional astronomers in the world. Hartmann was among them.

“What we’re witnessing is the formation of a black hole, but some material will escape and in that escaping flux of material is what we all love, gold,” Hartmann said. “We actually believe that this is one of the sites in the universe where gold can be produced.”

Hartmann said the discovery is a game-changer.

“Multimessenger, time-domain astronomy is now an established field, it’s a total new branch of doing astronomy.”

Learn more about the discovery at https://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=243382&org=NSF&from=news.

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